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Fire chiefs around country warn Australia of bleak bushfire outlook

Kate Doyle, Thursday September 6, 2018 - 15:24 EST
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Firies are gearing up for high risk fire season in 2018/2019. - ABC licensed

As fire chiefs from around the country stood ready to announce the Southern Australian Bushfire Outlook for 2018/2019, there was a grim sense of inevitability.

Fires have already ripped through southern New South Wales during winter, the spring outlook is dire, and there is twice the normal likelihood of an El Nino this summer.

This year is looking bad and the line-up of official uniforms and shiny badges seemed to be saying: "This is your official warning."

Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) chief executive Richard Thornton particularly in the east.

"We are seeing an outlook that is really dominated by the drought conditions, particularly in Queensland, New South Wales and Gippsland, in Victoria," he said.

State by state outlook

New South Wales is a tinderbox. Last summer was dry, autumn was dry, and the entire state has been drought-declared, with spring not looking any better.

"There are literally millions of people at risk from bushfires this season in New South Wales," said Anthony Clark, from the NSW Rural Fire Service.

The whole of the east coast in NSW is expecting above-normal fire potential — and that is forested country where the most people live.

"While we have had good rain in the last few weeks in some locations, it simply hasn't been enough," Mr Clark said.

He said last month alone there were more than 2,000 bush and grass fires across New South Wales.

"If you are wondering if you need to get ready for the bushfire season, this is your wake-up call — get ready now," Mr Clark said.

Normal conditions are expected for most of Victoria, with the exception of East Gippsland.

However, authorities are stressing that even in a normal year, Victoria is one of the most fire-prone regions in the world and communities need to prepare accordingly.

Most of South Australia is expecting normal fire conditions, apart from areas of concern in the north such as the APY Lands, the Flinders Ranges, the mid-north and through to the Riverland and the Murray.

Conditions in Tasmania are expected to be similar to last year, but with a strip of elevated bushfire risk down the very east coast.

Tasmania's chief fire officer Chris Arnol said residents needed to prepare, and encouraged people to consult fire protection plans for communities across the state.

"If you own the land you own the risk," he said.

The Australian Capital Territory is expecting an above-average fire risk throughout the summer.

Emergency Services Agency commissioner Dominic Lane brought up the deadly 2003 bushfires.

"Make no mistake, in Canberra we face the same scenario going into this year," he warned.

Western Australia is facing a different problem.

The south-west corner has had good rainfall over the past few months, but this could turn dangerous if new growth dries out and produces massive fuel loads in the Mallee, Coolgardie, Nullarbor, Hampton and Great Victoria Desert regions.

However, as a result of previous bushfires and prescribed burning, shrublands across the Darling Range have been fragmented into parcels.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services deputy commissioner Doug Smith said the season had started early in the sunshine state.

"The last two weeks alone suggest we had over 1,000 fires to respond to," he said.

Mr Smith said most of those fires were in the south-east part of the state, from Rockhampton down to the border of NSW.

"With above-average fuel loads in that area and low soil moisture, and a low probability of any rainfall of significance, the fire outlook for that part of Queensland is very serious," he said.

Why are conditions so bad?

Drought in NSW has been the story of the season as dominant high pressure across the continent and cool oceans in the north-west this winter have stopped moisture from reaching most of the state.

But it has not just been dry, it has been hot too.

Nationally, it has been , sitting at 1.3 degrees Celsius above the long-term average.

Issues 'right across the country'

Today the states and territories presented a united front.

"When it comes to fires and emergencies, the state boundaries are effectively rubbed out," Country Fire Service South Australia chief officer Greg Nettleton said.

But Victorian Country Fire Authority chief officer Steve Warrington said there were "issues right across the country" this year.

And he said this could make it hard for states agencies to support one another.

"This year, potentially, we could be challenged. Already NSW has had 100 fires," Mr Warrington said.

"We have had fires, Queensland has fires, so their ability to support other states will be limited by the fact that they are in their own game, [so] we might struggle."

Mr Warrington called on the public to work with authorities because they are unable to get to every house.

"Work with us to ensure everyone stays safe this summer," he said.

Dr Thornton said it was "highly unusual" to see so many fires so early in the season, and is urging communities to begin their fire preparation.

"Having a plan, working out where to go if they are going to leave, and importantly, [identifying] the triggers for them to leave and not leaving it until the fire is at the end of the street," he said.

The united message is clear: prepare now. We have been warned.


© ABC 2018

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